Busy year on the horizon for rails-to-trails project

By ERROL CASTENS / Daily Journal Oxford Bureau

PONTOTOC – Efforts to transform an abandoned railroad into a recreational trail will move into high gear next year in anticipation of a 2012 opening.
Crews are finishing survey work along more than 40 miles of what was the southern portion of the Mississippi-Tennessee Railroad between New Albany and Houston.
When completed, the trail will provide recreation to walkers and runners, bicyclists and horseback riders on a 10-foot-wide paved path through woods, fields and towns.
Although the surrounding terrain varies from utterly flat river bottoms to steep hills, the railroad bed typically offers gentle grades that make for easy non-motorized traveling.
Ronnie Bell of the Three Rivers Planning and Development District said further work would be contracted early next year to continue the conversion.
“Hopefully in January we’ll bid for the clearing and grubbing,” he said.
Once that contract is signed and work is under way, Engineering Solutions Inc. will concentrate on final design details, he said, and bids for grading, drainage, bridge work and paving could be let as soon as April.
The last work would be construction of buildings with gift shops and information centers at trail entrances in New Albany, Pontotoc and Houston, with rest facilities at the whistlestops of Ingomar, Ecru, Algoma and New Houlka.
“2011 is going to be an extremely busy year for the rails-to-trails project,” Bell said. “We’re working with hopes that everything can be wrapped up by middle to late summer 2012.”
Some $10 million in federal transportation funds have been granted to the Tanglefoot Trail project, which is named for an early locomotive on the railroad built in the 1870s by author William Faulkner’s grandfather.
While several Mississippi communities have converted short sections of former railway to recreational use, the Tanglefoot Trail will be Mississippi’s second such conversion of more than 40 miles, following the Longleaf Trace between Hattiesburg and Prentiss.
Betsey Hamilton of New Albany, chairwoman of the Tanglefoot’s parent GMamp&O Rails-to-Trails Recreational District, said similar projects in other parts of the country have become destinations for athletic and nature-seeking tourists.
“There are some wonderful opportunities for businesses – bike repairs, restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, wilderness camping, stables for the horseback riders,” she said.
Tanglefoot’s route, which follows an ancient Chickasaw trail, and its proximity to the Ingomar Mounds historic site, Faulkner’s birthplace and other sites with stories to tell will entice an even wider group of potential tourists, Hamilton said.
“It’s going to be so much more than just a biking-walking-jogging trail,” she said.
Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or errol.castens@djournal.com.